Review of Weiner’s “The Political Constitution”

I have a review of Professor Greg Weiner book, The Political Constitution: The Case Against Judicial Supremacy, over at the Liberty Fund blog. A bit:

The book’s basic argument is that contemporary Americans have lost the sense in which the Constitution is fundamentally a “political” document, by which Weiner means a vehicle for “pursuing human goods through interdependent lives” with “openness to shared ideas of noble ends pursued with common purpose.” The Constitution, he says, embodies a certain kind of politics—republicanism—in which authority is vested in the people, working through their representatives, to take primary responsibility for the “res” of the “res publica” in the pursuit of the “ends we share.” Weiner contrasts this vision with one of individualist constitutionalism, in which all valid political ends are derived from the private choices of individuals, and which is not really a form of politics at all—an “anti-political” (as Weiner puts it) politics of rights maximization without concomitant social responsibilities.

These two models of constitutional politics (or politics and “anti-politics”) correspond, Weiner claims, to two views of the nature and scope of federal judicial power in America: judicial restraint and judicial engagement. Judicial restraint, in Weiner’s view, empowers the people to reclaim what is rightfully theirs as republican citizens from a judiciary that has usurped their sovereignty and enervated their capacity for self-governance in declaring itself the supreme expositor of the Constitution. Judicial engagement—which Weiner associates especially with the work of Professor Randy Barnett and the Cato Institute’s Clark Neily and Roger Pilon, but there are several distinguished scholars in this camp—empowers the judiciary to guard individual liberty against the perpetual encroachments of the government’s other branches while itself perpetually encroaching on the claims of the people qua political entity.

One view favors the claims of the political community as against the individual, asking judges to acquiesce in them; the other, the claims of the individual as against the political community, asking judges to vindicate them. Yet while the cost in abandoning the former may only be the loss of some implausible claims of individual freedom, the cost in forsaking the latter, Weiner says, is nothing less than the American republican soul…. 

The problem that the book sets out to solve is therefore dwarfed by the problem that it actually uncovers. If that problem—the problem of the endurance of “We the People” in America—is to be engaged (I say nothing of solved) from the judicial end of the table in a satisfactory way, it will not be through judicial disengagement and leaving the people to their own devices, as ill-considered and noxious as they may be. It will instead be at least in part by asking courts—carefully and always honoring the limits assigned to them by the Constitution—to engage with American constitutional law in ways that differ substantively from the partisans of “judicial engagement” whom Weiner criticizes.

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